Results tagged “kcactf” from Drama Queen

The 2010 Region II Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival O'Neill Critics Institute winner is...

Villanova University graduate Student Mark J. Costello (From now on, he'd like to be referred to by his professional name, "SarcMark").
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Our alternate is Muhlenberg College freshman Amy Asendorf.
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But really, all the students are winners. Under ordinary circumstances that might sound pretty trite. However, these weren't ordinary circumstances. The class' late nights, early mornings, dedication to the work, and support for one another was remarkable. The night they wrote their final reviews, they also critiqued a group speed-writing exercise, tweeted with me about the assignment at 3 a.m., and still showed up early for our 9:30 a.m. class. I mean, I took writing workshops in college, and I guess we must have worked, but I sure don't recall anyone working like that.

Much thanks and deep respect to this year's critics, and also to over 2,000 people who followed the critics' progress on this blog; it was really helpful and motivating for these new, young writers to know they had a built-in audience. 
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Also, special thanks to Clarion College English professor Ralph Leary, tireless organizer of the OCI and one of the few people on earth who every year spends a week with a room full of critics and still walks away with glowing reviews.
January 17, 2010 8:00 PM | | Comments (1)
My Critics Institute students got a real challenge yesterday: review Indiana University of Pennsylvania's production of the charming family show A Year with Frog and Toad, and then review Stockton College's A Comb and a Prayer Book, a first-person account of the Holocaust. So yeah, they had one helluva day. Here are those reviews (I gave the option of choosing which one to post).

What we'd like to know is this: what works for you and what doesn't. Pick your favorite review and tell that critic why you liked it. Find common threads that run through the reviews and point out who expresses those themes most successfully and why. Tell the students what you want from a review, and let them know if anyone delivered.

A Year with Frog and Toad

Robby Bassler

Wake up! Come on, hibernation is over! No it does not matter what your age is, because Willie Reale's adaptation of Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad series titled A Year With Frog and Toad presented by IUP takes both young and old on an adventure as large as your wildest imaginations.

We are going to start our adventure off in a waterfall of shrill trumpets, finger-snapping bass riffs, and synthesizers that outlive their reputation. With a little help from your imagination, bells turn into swirling leaves to create the environment. Occasionally, critters will sing along with these background beats, but you must watch out for awkward pauses before, during, and after these animals begin their swan songs. Fortunately the beautiful woodland voices cover up any murky water in the composition and you will be singing along with them in your head long after the adventure is over.

The guides of our adventure, Frog and Toad as played by Sean Barrett and Joe York respectively, outshine expectations from the most dedicated toad-toting toddler or teen.  They will take us through relatively simple book-cover set that is transformed by the imaginations of the animals and audience. The wise, dry-humored frog guides Toad, the physical, Chris Farley doppelganger as they fly kites, splash in a swimming hole, and bake cookies. You will surely learn and laugh along as the lanky frog and the large, loveable toad learn more about their unique friendship.

Wacky yet simple props give the illusion of magical flower-growing, springs shooting out of an alarm clock, and sponge sandwiches dripping water. Toad's polka dotted yellow bathing suit equipped with 1920's swimmer cap and an ensemble of doo-wop bird outfits of lace wings and a feather hat highlight the Dr. Seuss-like costume choices. The doo-wop birds fly in with the props or scenery changes to make sure that there are no pauses in the adventure.

No matter how great, an adventure is not complete without its precautions. On your adventure you must watch out because the poorly lit path equipped with purposeless spotlight-ningbugs may have you missing important moments in the show. Not even the brown blobs topped with a light bulb can help you as underdeveloped characters prevent them from ever illuminating the situation. You might not even be able to see the snail that will leave poor timing slime all over your knickers and slow down your journey to an awkward pace merely to sing about how everyone should take a "real good look at her."

Toad and Frog's platonic book-ending where they meet each other in their dreams and summarize the entire show might be the only failure of the script not to dumb down the message for kids. Throughout the rest of the adventure, you will be treated as an intelligent member of Toad and Frog's witty, vaudevillian comedy. So dads that would rather hibernating, use your children as an excuse to lick this toad and ride out the multi-colored shockwave of fun.

Mark J. Costello

Frog and Toad Not Just Child's Play

Mention "children's theater" to any member of the arts set and watch them convulse. The mere utterance calls up images of well-meaning but generally inept production teams staging concentrated saccharine on DayGlo sets. The fear is that easy physicality might trump complex story and that no thread, thought, or moment will last longer than 30 seconds. It's a rule that children's productions are little more than distracting chaos unleashed, because kids are dumb, right?

Absolutely not, booms the reply from IUP's Theatre-by-the-Grove. A Year With Frog and Toad is the latest volley against drivel in the war for legitimate children's theater. Sean Barret's Frog and Joe York's Toad guide us through a whimsical, musical world in which snails deliver mail, a protean chorus of birds croon in Andrews Sisters melodies, and most importantly, no one in the audience is talked down to.

A simple set (a storybook backdrop, a few sticks of furniture, and two white picket fences) allows for an expansive space in which magic can be made. And magic it truly is: IUP's production teaches that in a world where we value and care for each other more than ourselves, the things we want simply appear in the wings. Lovingly holding a flowerpot allows flowers to grow (quite suddenly!) and seats appear when tired bones call out to them. Frog and Toad's child-sized bromance envelops the stage in a magical ether where innocence is rewarded.

The show's tech aspects are at once its blessing and its curse. Spring-loaded alarm clocks and flowerbeds, sharply colored 1930s-chic costuming, and punny cookbooks ("Betty Croaker"--go ahead and groan) create a whimsy one settles into readily. Meandering spotlights, however, sometimes distractingly light up barren stretches of empty stage. The pit overpowers the cast often (especially Barret, when he slips into his low register), and one must endure uninspired, repetitive choreography during frequent musical interludes.

Strong performances save us from these wanting moments, however. York can pull laughs out of the audience simply by twitching his eyes or muttering innocent epithets under his breath. His and Barret's comedic timing fire with Annie Oakley-like precision. Veronica Wilt (at various points a Bird, Mouse, Turtle, and Mole) pulls at her whiskers or flicks her beak in so meticulous-yet-subtle a way that one, at once, notices the skill of the actress and senses the breathing reality of the animal. And, most impressively, not once do the performances push into condescension: at all points, IUP asserts complicated theatrical conventions (for example: see this man in a suit? He's actually a frog--run with it) and fully expects kids to come along for the ride.

Their willingness to respect child intelligence is rewarded in the formation of a well-rounded, respectable production. They have told children that it's okay to dream, to love simply, and to put others before all things.

Maybe it isn't really children's theater after all.

Connor Davis

Sweet, with an Excellent Crunch

"Crisp, but not overly brittle, just a scintilla of spice, and cunningly soft in the middle." Claims the delightful Frog as he relishes a fresh cookie from his pal Toad.

Coincidentally, Frog is also describing Indiana University Pennsylvania's production of A Year with Frog and Toad. Based on the classic children books by Arnold Lobel, this cheery musical chronicle the events of two best friends through one year. Warmly acted and agreeably sung, this production was as tasty and enjoyable as the first bite of a warm chocolate-chip cookie right out of the oven.

With Robert Reale's score, which ranges from brisk jazzy melodies to breezy country tunes, and Willie Reale's witty book the play has something for everyone. This is not your average children's play that uses witty dialogue to play down to a young child or over their heads. Under the delicate and careful direction of Rob Gretta, the small ensemble remains true to the script and does not favor an adult or children's audience. The show portrays a simple friendship that is strong and can't be broken in half like a cookie.

At the center of this production were a charming and playful Sean Barret as Frog and the sincere and sometimes doleful Joe York as Toad. Both embody their character fully, keeping the audience engaged through inside jokes, and amusing sight gags. The ensemble works hard, and seamlessly with the audience to tell a warm story of friendship and devotion.

If there is any burnt or overcooked element in this production, it came from Brandon Beale & Anthony Lombardi's lighting design. While creating beautiful atmospheric looks to Dan Iwaniec's minimalist set, their use of follow spots was the only stale part of this production. At times the actors were not in their light, and could not be seen by the audience. Not to pin all the blame on Beale & Lombardi, Gretta stages several scenes extremely down stage creating impossible positions to hang and focus lights.

Dan Iwaniec's charming costumes provided depth to characters, and caused the characters to jump out of the stage like a children's pop-up book. Carefully and cleverly detailed, the costumes gave each character their own distinct style. From Frog's sharp striped suit, with green leggings, to Toad's poke-a-dotted suit with converse sneakers, the costumes gave the actors another layer to dig deeper into their amphibian characters.

Zipping along at a quick ninety minute pace, this delightful musical comedy reminds audience members that simple is better. Many contemporary musicals today try and boast flashy technical elements to Wow the audience over, yet contain librettos and scores that are hollow and flat. A Year with Frog and Toad is consumed like a chocolate-chip cookie, delicious from first bite to last and profoundly memorable long after it has been fully digested. 

Valerie Gibbs

Is Spring Here Yet?

A lot can happen in a year, especially when you're hanging out with two energetic amphibians like Frog and Toad. Indiana University of Pennsylvania's production of A Year with Frog and Toad takes this classic children's story and brings it to life in a vibrant way. These two amphibious pals will keep you leaping with laughter through every season, no matter what your age. Who ever said there was an age limit to children's theater? This show definitely proves that anyone can rediscover their inner child and enjoy the innocence of a make believe world in which animals can sing and dance.

The five person cast took on the challenge of over thirteen different characters and performed a show enjoyable for the entire family. The girls of the ensemble sung as sweetly as any Lady Bird and had tight harmonies and full voices that produced the sound of a much larger ensemble. Sean Barrett (Frog) and Joe York (Toad) did not have to work hard to gain the complete attention and approval of the audience. They were engaging and easy to watch, and when they had fun, the audience had fun too. They had a strong connection and portrayed a lifelong friendship. They showed us just how fun baking cookies, flying kites, and sledding with your friends can be. Frog and Toad were best friends, and as we journeyed through the year with them, we learned more and more about what true friendship looks like. Though the story is technically meant for children, the script kept the parents in mind as well with jokes about the bird flu, the wittiness of "snail mail," and various other things that any child would probably not notice. There was something entertaining for everyone to enjoy.

Though the set was minimal, the costumes and props were more than enough to create the fun-filled atmosphere of this show. With the exciting little tricks of the springing alarm clock and the growing flowers in the garden, to the cleverness of using sponges for soggy sandwiches, the props added a youthful, excitement and mystical element to the show.  The vintage style of the costumes gave the show the feel of a sophisticated fairytale. The textures and fashions coordinated perfectly with the jazz era musical style as well. Even those in "the pond pit" were dressed to match. This show was unified across the spectrum.

The only thing that needed more attention was the lighting. The follow spots struggled to keep up with their actors and at one point, the audience members somehow became illuminated as well. The house lights flickered at one part too, which could have easily been prevented. The overall lighting was sloppy and flat and did not do much to enhance the atmosphere of the show. However, all the other elements worked so well together that I was willing to overlook the unimpressive lights and still enjoy an experience that had me ready to spend another year with the wonderful dynamic duo, Frog and Toad.

Nathan Taylor

There Could Be No Better Friend Than IUP

Frogs and toads and snails - oh my! No, it wasn't an aquatic version of "The Wizard of Oz," but rather Indiana University of Pennsylvania's production of A Year with Frog and Toad, a children's theater musical whose title couldn't be more truthful. Exploring the bonds of friendship, Frog and Toad bake cookies, ride a sled, and rake each others leaves as the seasons pass.

Even before the musical begins the audience is immersed into the storybook world of these lovable characters when musical director Tom Octave introduces the orchestral "pond." Though the set is minimalistic, nothing besides a few choice pieces are ever needed; the production is carried primarily through the actors, props, and costumes, a welcome change from the growing trend of spectacle heavy musicals.

Sean Barrett's Frog provides an air of cordiality without ceding any of the downright neighborly vibes towards Joe York's ragamuffin Toad. Their relationship was like a G-rated version of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple;" despite the clear differences in their characterizations, there was never any doubt about how much each actor cared about the other - it was in their voices and physicality. Even with an over the top style conducive towards children's theatre, their believability never faltered.

Both Barrett and York utilized melodious voices that rose to the belting occasion when required. What was truly impressive was their ability to keep their respective character voices when doing so; Barrett's was deep and rich, while York's was more nasally and high pitched. The main difference between the two, and the divergence between a good performance and a great one, were their capabilities with comedic timing. While not awful, Barrett mistimed a fair number of his jokes which turned the show's intended steady stream of laughter into shorter gale force bursts.

Helping York with his masterful use of comedy were a plethora of props produced by Natalie Brown and Amber Musselman. Adding to the cartoonish nature of the show were their rather numerous creative devices; memorable ones include a breakable alarm clock that shot springs, a bed of soil from which flowers popped up, and sponge burgers which wrung out water onto the stage.

Supporting actresses Jamie Markel, Whitney Weimer, and Veronica Wilt made full use of Dan Iwaniec's inventive costumes that were quite congruent with the nature of the props.  With ears made of springs, shells made of blankets, and miner's head lamps made from plastic wine glasses, Iwaniec's design never showed a lack of ingenuity without impeding any functionality.

"A Year with Frog and Toad" is best described in the words of the titular characters when they sing "it's inconceivable! It's unbelievable!" The only thing they leave out is that IUP's musical is a whole heap of fun, unrestricted to age and guaranteed to make audiences giggle.

A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story

Shawn Arnold

"Survivor Story" Needs a Little Help

Okay, epic story, guys! Elizabeth Goldstein, a young Hungarian Jew, is uprooted thanks to the Holocaust. She embarks on a perilous journey from concentration camp to concentration camp. Along the way she loses most of her family, but refuses to lose her own will. She even manages to escape the bloody Nazi regime and passes down her story to her granddaughter. If this were a play, sounds like it would make for some assuredly gripping theater, right? Epic stuff!

Richard Stockton College's production of A Comb and a Prayer Book does not quite live up to this epic-ness. In an attempt to avoid a "typical" Holocaust play, director Pamela Hendrick decided to create a text-based piece stylistically employing chamber theater (think books on tape, but instead onstage). Although it attempts to send a clear message home, the end result of this "creative" endeavor is a muddy mix that has moments that stun as well as bore.

The piece visually nails it. Dan Wright and Chuck Cole's use of side/down light casts huge shadows and creates an ominous sense of foreboding. This is most intense when a Nazis' Greek chorus is rambling off a cacophony of legislation on the suppression of Jews.

The sound design by Jessica Schon includes bold and haunting choices. Most notably is a sequence where she uses John Hobbie's versatile set as a means to create sounds of a munitions factory. By hitting, scraping and slamming the set, the cast viscerally brings the world of the factory to life.

Pamela Hendrick's cast clearly brings the message home that the play is about preventing genocide. There is also an intense focus on presenting the source material as written. This non-traditional interpretation becomes old quickly, however, as the audience is hammered over the head again and again with presentational narration on level with Ben Stein's droning.

One would think that Hannah Hendry's Goldstein would experience a wave of emotions induced by PTSD while recalling her horrific past. Sadly, trying to find this development is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Hendry's portrayal is monotonous, and in the few months when she is overcome with emotions, they disappear as quickly as they arrived.

Lauren Suprenant's young Elizabeth has more redeeming qualities than her counterpart. Yes, she does fall into the trap of monotony quite a few times when discussing the taking of her father, but her struggle with optimism is generally clearer.

A Comb and a Prayer Book is neither stellar nor terrible. Some brave choices that don't completely work might cost Richard Stockton College the patronage of the audience member who likes a more "typical" Holocaust play (a la Anne Frank or Playing for Time). However, those that want to explore a more presentational text-centric piece, it might be for you.

Amy Asendorf

When A Comb and a Prayer Book Are Your Only Hope

Family Separation. Back-breaking labor. Painful humiliation. Torturous starvation. And all because she was Jewish. A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story, as performed by the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, is an original verbatim theater production based on the memoir of Holocaust victim Elizabeth Blum Goldstein. Because the majority of the production accentuated the dismal trials of life amidst concentration camps, the display of Goldstein's miraculous hope and resilience served merely to remind us of the hope for human tolerance, but lacked a firm basis in reality.

Director Pamela R. Hendrick chose to utilize alternating patterns of narration, dialogue and dramatic action which produced a haunting rhythm to which the audience travelled alongside Goldstein. The use of overlapping served multiple purposes as the lines between Elizabeth Goldstein (Hannah Hendry) and Young Elizabeth (Lauren Suprenant) established a clear distinction between Goldstein's recollection and the interview between Goldstein and Shana Fogarty (Lauren Suprenant) at present. In addition, the overlapping lines of the Hungarian government officials, played by the ensemble, drowned the audience in a spinning whirlpool of hatred and fear. The nearly monotone montage of voices took on a distinctly robotic nature, completely unidentifiable with human emotion and empathy.

Hendrick also established the idea of rigidity within the lives of the Holocaust victims. The meticulously equal spacing between characters as well as the stiff stances of the Hungarian officials and camp guards suggested the immutability of Goldstein's situation. Ironically, the actors playing the siblings and parents of Goldstein's family also play the guards and officials who condemn them. This intriguing duality asserts that both sets of individuals are equally human.

Hannah Hendry provided a breathtakingly chilling portrayal of the disturbed Goldstein. Her rich Hungarian accent combined with her meek hesitancy naturally evoked pity and fear. It was as if Hendry were a hypnotist as the audience fell powerless to the horrors of her account. Each time she nearly stopped the story due to her fragile and painful memories was like a sudden return to reality. Unfortunately, the potential cathartic effect of Hendry's performance was hampered by her young counterpart, Lauren Suprenant. Suprenant ultimately failed to express the horrors of her own present reality as young Goldstein. In fact, there seemed to be no audible change in voice or physical change in stance and presence as Suprenant oscillated between her two roles. The calmness of Shana, the interviewer, seemed to carry over into Young Goldstein, the mildly disturbed, if that.

Due to the complete lack of comic relief, the closing of the production was only slightly palatable. The audience was abruptly shifted froma pathos-ridden tale to a sudden public service announcement: What can we do to help stop genocide? Unfortunately, it's hard to call an audience to action when they are overwhelmend by emotional hypnosis.

Nicholas Barilar

Holocaust Play Proves to Be Devastating

Three multi-leveled scaffold towers loom before you. The house lights slowly darken.  The ominous sound of a Yiddish tune on pipes is suddenly heard.The lights come up and the Brechtian A Comb and a Prayer Book:  A Survivor's Story plunges us into the tragic world of a holocaust survivor. Unfortunately, this production proved tragic as well.

It shares the story of Elizabeth Blum Goldstein who, after facing a brutal experience in six different concentration camps, tells her story for the first time to her granddaughter for a class project. We see both happening at the same time. 

I loved the set design by John Hobbie. It was balanced as well as extremely usable for such a stylized show. 

The lighting, by Daniel Wright and Charles Cole III, was effective, specifically, in the use of a projection that placed barbed wire across the entire stage provided a sharp jab to the stomach in not only separating the characters from the world outside the concentration camps but from the audience as well.

Perhaps the most helpful in the actual storytelling, though, was the combination of properties and sound designs, by Jessica Schön and Patrick Judd, respectively. When the set is pounded by billy clubs to create gunshots that create sounds that crawl over and through you like an ocean wave the result is chilling. Still, one of the hardest images to shake comes when the family is forced into labor and create, using the props and their bodies, the sounds of the factory. But, then there will be occasions when non-live sounds were used and they simply failed to have the same impact.

The acting was largely executed in a very unrealistic manner. These moments were probably the most effective at the beginning when laws regarding the rights of a Jewish person were recited in a chaotic unison. However, for the actual action of the play, it proved to be irritating because the best moments of action where acted realistically.

The cast comes across as awkward, however, the fault probably lies in the direction. It became very clear that what was and wasn't real or "in the moment" wasn't real because it failed to connect and just lacked life. Coupled with pacing problems, the direction was simply stagnant. Toward the end of climax-devoid staging, it all just seems the same, that being too long and slow.

The final scene between Elizabeth and her granddaughter are amongst the most tender in the show.  However, it moves quickly from actual action immediately to what could be described as a Brecht after-school-special for action against genocide. This is the moment when the playwright/director decided to hit the audience over the head just to make sure that it understood the message of the play. Thanks. We got it through the telling the story of a historical genocide through the eyes of someone who experienced it in a contemporary setting in a contemporary way. But thanks for making sure. 

Michael Cook

A Comb and A Lack of Justice Done

A Comb and a Prayer Book is a play about a woman revealing her experiences in the holocaust for the first time since the events transpired. This sentence seems to be the basis for several other books, plays, and movies. However, A Comb and a Prayer Book claims to be much more and falls short of those claims. The story is one of hope and the subject matter of the Holocaust is a familiar tale to many people who are taught not to forget the past. 

Before the play started, I noticed the unconventional size of the program and read the director's notes which stated that the director wished to portray the reality of the holocaust using Chamber Theatre (a style of theatre which seeks to use as much of the original text from which it was adapted) because every other play the director read resorted to expressionism or metaphor to convey this. However, upon viewing this play I would certainly say that expressionism is a large influence on the play. However, the costumes didn't lend well to either idea. The men were in costumes that suggested Jewish apparel of the time, but the female characters were wearing black leggings and jumpers, which could have suggested that the play is a memory, and some of the details of the memory aren't as strong. While some may argue that this was the entire point in doing so, it is also possible that it was entirely unnecessary. The music seemed to cut off the actors' lines at times and at other times it was almost overwhelming viewing the play, the acting itself was good and the actors had to play several different characters, changing many conflicting mindsets and personalities in a matter of minutes, and the lighting helped establish the cold nature of the Holocaust, and the warm nature of the family.

The story itself would have been worth hearing regardless of how its presented but I often found myself asking if the story was being dealt justice during my viewing. However, the ending seemed to pull me entirely out of the story and could've been a reminder that injustice carries on to this day, but instead seemed awkwardly executed and killed the mood of the play, instead of portraying reality it felt too much like I was watching a group of actors trying to raise awareness about a cause. 

While it was an ambitious first production, I feel as if this script has the possibility of being executed well, but for now that will have to wait. 

Peter Starr Northrop

A Comb and a Prayer Book and Not Much Else

Ah yes, the Holocaust. It was one of the harshest crucibles that mankind has ever had to endure. By now, we've all heard the terrible stories of that dreadful time, from Anne Frank's heartbreaking diary to the power and fury of Ellie Weisel's Night. The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey has tried to add one more side to this terrible chapter with A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story.

Comb tells the story of one Stockton grad's grandmother's struggle after the Nazis took over her homeland and sent her to concentration camp after concentration camp. It then goes on to tell very little else. In fact, by the end it ends up being very little more than an infomercial, listing several genocides that are ongoing asking the audience what they have done to stop the horror.

But, storytelling aside, this show looked fantastic. Set designer Jon Hobbie really accomplished something special for this show. His design is made entirely out of layers and stacks of skeletal scaffolding backed by grey scrims. This, paired with Daniel Wright's chilled lighting design really sombers up the audience even before the show begins. The whole thing is cold and grey--a cloudy December afternoon on an industrial beachfront. This spartan design leads to some incredible stage pictures. We see a whole family crammed into the cattle car of one scaffold while bright jagged squares of light play off their frightened faces. But these beautiful and shudder-inducing images do little to save the show from it's greatest flaw: the story.

The tale is told essentially through a 90 minute intermissionless monologue shared by Elizabeth Blum (Hannah Hendry) and her granddaughter, Shana Fogarty (Lauren Suprenant.) The show went live in the massive Fischer Auditorium, though it became abundantly clear that Comb felt more at home in a smaller space. Suprenant simply could not project to fill that whole auditorium, and Hendry did not fare any better. Their speeches took on a ghostly, distant aspect that made it difficult for the audience to make any emotional connection.

The show is more of a torture story than a survival story. Elizabeth doesn't tell us how she survived--she just shows that she was ripped from her home and sent to six concentration camps where the Nazis were very mean. Then she gets liberated. Then she goes to New Jersey. The end. The program tells a better story than the actual play, saying that Elizabeth triumphed over the holocaust--surviving and raising a family in South Jersey despite what she had been through. What I would have loved to see was a second act--where Elizabeth gets out of Europe, goes to Jersey (survives Jersey) and raises that family. That would make an audience stand up and cheer. I want to see the triumph, not just the mere survival of someone.

While Comb is a very important story, it simply does not tell enough of it to make the experience have anything other than a slight educational value. 

Jensen Toperzer

A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story

In literary fiction, there is an adage that one should always show, not tell - that is, a character should not simply state "I am angry," but show their rage through their actions and reactions. It is advice repeated to the point of near absurdity, but that does not change its relevance, and it is at this very task that Pamela Hendrick's adaptation A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story utterly fails.

There's a certain irony in this, as the theater is a medium precisely for showing, not telling, but many parts of A Comb and a Prayer Book feel like a book report rather than a play, with the narrators both seeming emotionally distant from their subject matter - a true shame, as the story itself should be incredibly moving. We speak here of a story about a woman who managed to survive not one, but six concentration camps, and who is alive to this day with grandchildren.

The primary problem comes from director Pamela Hendrick's choice to create the play as a Chamber piece. While the style has been used effectively in other contexts - such as The Grapes of Wrath - in this case, it serves to create a gulf of emotional distance between the audience and a subject that should, by all means, be emotionally raw. While the director's stated goal of neither sanitizing nor romancing the Holocaust is an admirable one, it is one the piece ultimately falls short of. Indeed, A Comb and a Prayer Book does feel sanitized. For example, there is one scene in which a young Elizabeth describes the horror of her first day at Auschwitz. A woman lay on her back beside the line as she and her family were shuffled through the gates, screaming - she realized, watching, that the woman was giving birth. The Nazi officers merely watched until the baby came out, and only then shot her dead, letting her suffer as much as possible. This is a scene that should be gut-wrenchingly powerful, that should induce a truly visceral reaction in the audience, an idea further punctuated by the dramatic change in the lighting from light to dark. Yet the way the lines are written coupled with a flat delivery mean that the scene evokes no reaction whatsoever. It is simply a fact reported to the audience, like watching a documentary or reading a history book, not a visceral, immediate truth of the horrors present in history. 

The ending of the play feels ham-handed, with the actors listing off modern genocides in an effort to brain the audience with the fact that the Holocaust "could happen again." But because the horrors of the Holocaust were not presented in a way that could evoke an emotional response from the audience, this list falls as flat as the rest of the production, feeling more like the sort of thing told to middle school history classes.

In the end, A Comb and a Prayer Book manages to do the very thing it set out to avoid - it sanitizes the Holocaust and worse yet, Elizabeth's story, turning it from a real account of a horrible time in someone's life into a dull diatribe about why one shouldn't commit genocide.

Kelly Wetherald

Operation Comb and A Prayer Book: Mission Failed

The Holocaust of World War II is an event that educated individuals cannot avoid learning about for we are bombarded with images, events and horrific details in American history classes nationwide. Nearly six million Jews were murdered, tortured and humiliated all to indulge the egotistical control freak, Adolf Hitler. Modern society knows this. But what about genocide in Darfur, Rwanda, or Yugoslavia, that was randomly mentioned at the end of the show? What about those people and their suffering? What about the confinement of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. If we are obsessed with the Holocaust because we as Americans feel guilty, then why aren't we creating theatrical pieces expressing other areas of humanistic suffering? As messed up as it sounds, our culture has become desensitized to the horror of the Holocaust. 

The main area I am struggling with was whether the purpose of A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story was to tell one person's history or to heighten awareness of genocide and humanistic cruelty. The play had an unclear objective and static storyline which in turn made the performance boring and unbearably annoying. To me it was just another attempt at making a Holocaust memoir that turned out to be an epic fail.

I cannot blame the painful performance solely on the actors at Stockton College, but I can however place direct blame on director Pamela R. Hendrick. In her own words, "scripts that attempt a realistic representation of the Holocaust are problematic because such an extreme event is impossible to recreate realistically in live performance." I wish that she actually took some of her own advice. There are certainly successful Holocaust survival stories that have been turned into books and plays. Anne Frank for example could convey a sense of fear, sympathy, strength, and most of all history in her memoirs. That particular interpretation was focused and knew how to appeal to an audience without being overwhelming. A Comb and a Prayer Book however did not.

Hendrick also chose to incorporate Chamber Theatre techniques while directing A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story. This technique includes using as much original text as possible while telling the story through a couple of main characters.  Unfortunately, Lauren Suprenant playing Shana Fogerty and Hannah Hendry playing Elizabeth Blum Goldstein's monotone vocal qualities, unmotivated monologues and lack of ensemble interaction put me to sleep. 

One positive in this production of A Comb and a Prayer Book was the technical lighting and set design. The use of top, side and blue light helped to create a somber, death stricken mood that the actors themselves couldn't naturally create. The lighting created depth, a sense of time and helped to make the minimalistic set spring to life.

The high hopes that I had for this production after their nomination to KCACTF were shattered within twenty minutes. I found myself longing for the end or at least for the nonexistent intermission to take a break from the monotonous one dimensional narration.

January 14, 2010 7:53 PM | | Comments (1)
Today was the critics' first day of critic class and I felt it was important to make one thing abundantly clear before we even met: critics aren't just critics anymore. That's why, upon entering our classroom, each student opened a Twitter account (fellow tweeters can follow #kcactf2 to see what they're up to), hitched it to their Facebook accounts, and pitched me a feature story related to the festival. Along the way, we lost one student (Meredith Young) and an e-mail (Michael Cook didn't get the query request, so you'll have to wait until tomorrow to see his work) and gained another student. Also, I apologize in advance for the inconsistent formatting; I can't seem to get this post to appear in a single font.

So without further interference from me, here's Amy Asendorf. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Amy is currently a Dana Scholar freshman at Muhlenberg College. As a junior and senior at Hereford High School, Amy participated as a critic for the Baltimore chapter of the Cappies Critics and Awards Program, serving as lead critic her senior year. Her review for Atholton High School's The Diary of Anne Frank was selected for publication in The View newspaper in 2007. Amy was also heavily involved with the International Thespian Society, acting in a number of productions, choreographing, and serving as president her senior year. Additionally, in 2009, she won first prize in the Hunt Valley Rotary Four-Way Speech contest for her original speech entitled, "Childhood: Going Once, Going Twice." Most recently, Amy has been hired by the Muhlenberg Writing Center and will begin her work in the fall of 2010. 

Now that all the formalities are out of the way, editors, journalists, and those with an interest in reading about theater are welcome to tell the students which article (or articles) wins them a paycheck and a clip, and why.

Query 1:
Dear Editor,

The Kennedy Center American College Theater Regional Festival is a massive event, consisting of dozens of shows put on by hundreds of students from a vast variety of different colleges, all descending upon one place at one time. What does it take to organize a conference of this size and scope? How does one handle that much information and corroborate with so many people successfully? 

I would like to present an 800 word article that tackles this question through an interview with one of the organizers - Elizabeth van den Berg, the Region II Vice-chair. Ms. van den Berg is responsible for a large amount of the organization behind the event, and an interview would provide a more personal lens through which to view the underlying structure of the event. 

The article is a behind-the-scenes look at KCACTF, examining how the event is organized from an insider's perspective, looking at the nitty-gritty behind the process. I look specifically at how one balances so many varied factors with the pressures of real life and teaching theater, as well as what the festival itself means to the people working on it.

As an English major specializing in creative nonfiction, I have a strong grasp of the English language and knowledge of how to write for magazines. Furthermore, I have worked personally with Ms. van den Berg for over four years on projects both in school and out, and am familiar with her and her work process. I thus have easy access to my interview source.

I feel that this article is an ideal subject for your magazine, and I hope that it piques your interest. Thank you for your time.

- B. Jensen Toperzer

Query 2:
The Indiana Metropolitan Times

"Pennsylvania's #3 metropolitan newspaper."

1239 Reality Road

Indiana Pa, 15705

Dear Editor,

The theater world has a new and exciting craze that's popping up in small drama companies all across the country. It's an incredible movement called "24 hour theater." This new twist on drama involves paring down the usually lengthy and exhausting process of writing, workshopping  and producing a fully staged show from  what could be several years to just a single day. This bold new form of expression is usually done in a festival setting where a rag-tag group of writers, directors, actors and designers are frantically thrown together into teams. They are then given a concept and (you guessed it) 24 hours to write, produce and perform a ten minute play. These festivals are usually teeming with the theater scene's amateurs, all of them desperate for that first chance to express their vision on the stage.

This sounds lovely, but do the theater-goers of your readers really want to go see a play (or series of plays) that have been haphazardly built over the course of a single day? What's the appeal of 24-hour theater to an audience?

I would like to offer your publication a 1,200-1,500 word feature article entitled "The Fringe Challenge--a look inside the new form of spontaneous theater" that answers that very question.  The article will take a very in-depth look at one of the many spontaneous  theater festivals that has popped up in the region--The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Fringe Challenge. While the Fringe Challenge is technically 48 hour theater, it's still got all the aspects one would expect from a 24 hour theater fest. Best of all, this year's challenge is held at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, located in the back yard of most of your publication's reader base.

The article will go in depth into the conceptual side of this new art form, opening up with the Fringe Challenge's long-time director, Len Kelly. It will then feature interviews with several of the Challenge's participants--where they will share their background in theater and their passion for this fun new way of looking at the performance arts. The article will be a collage of different stories from a wild and maddening 48 hour period that leaves its participants and audience members forever transformed. It will show amateurs pull off stunning theatrical feats that--given the circumstances--seem almost impossible.

The article can also have several aspects on your publications website if desired. Full audio interviews with participants are available and several groups involved have agreed to have their chaotic writing and rehearsal sessions filmed for internet publication--giving further breadth to this experience.

The Fringe Challenge begins on January 12th , and goes live on the night of the 14th.  The article and online aspects can be available to you by as early as the 15th.


Peter Starr Northrop

Query 3:

Dear Editor,

How many times have you driven down an unknown street in Philadelphia, and had a chill run down your spine? Did you immediately lock your doors, and accelerate your car to escape the block? If you have then the Temple University theater department's production of Shot! wants to have a brief word with you.

I'd like to offer you a 1,200-word article entitled "Song of the Street". The theater department of Temple University has conceived a brand newperformance piece entitled Shot! The piece gives audience members an inside look at Beirut, a Northern Philadelphia urban community, whose image has been tarnished from the 1964 riots.

My article will examine the process that the production team of Shot! went through and give an inside look at the process that goes into putting a piece of this nature together. Temple University uses poetry, monologues, songs, and documentary footage to create an authentic narrative and perspective of a neighborhood that has been. 

Through interviews with writer Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, director Doug Wager, and a few members of the ensemble members I will give readers an insight into the process. I will also have video recordings of the interview to place on your website. As a theater artist and scholar I believe that it is important to highlight this production and highlight the Docudrama performance style. I believe that through this production, Philadelphia citizens will get an insider's perspective into the real story of their community and an insight in the process that goes into putting a piece of this nature together. 

I would like to thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing back from you! 

Connor Davis

Query 4:

Dear Editor,

Is there really such a drastic gap between entertainment for children versus entertainment for adults?  And do basic instincts and values change over time or are the morals instilled in us as children timeless?  Actors and adult audience members alike tend to look at children's productions as a "dumbed-down" version of stereotypical theatre.  On the contrary, children's theatre explores a different aspect of creative expression, taking a script and interpreting the text to be universally relatable. 

I would like to offer you a 1,000 word article entitled, "Rediscovering Childhood in a World of Professionalism."  The article would explore the importance of well rounded theatrical exposure, the connection between a mature and elementary script style as well as Indiana University of Pennsylvania's effect on the youth of the community.  IUP's presentation of A Year with Frog and Toad by Willie and Robert Reale opened my eyes to the lack of children's style shows in production, especially at the collegiate level.  These specific points are supported with interview quotes of the cast and director, Rob Gretta, as well as video clips of recent productions. 

The lack of children's theatre workshops and events at KCACTF further proves the reasoning behind this article.  According to the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, children's theatre is a completely different focus for the performing arts that has consistently increased in both revenue and popularity over the last decade.  Shouldn't professors, actors, directors and theatre goers alike place more weight and interest on this steadily growing field? 

Children's theatre can be thought of as the foundation of theatrical experience.  If an actor or director can interpret a script and convey its message to a sea of children, then they can take the basics of a mature script and convey its ideas to a sea of educated adults. 

As an actor, newly evolving director, and avid writer I feel that I have an extremely diverse and multi-faceted viewpoint and would therefore be the best candidate to write for your journal.  I am a junior musical theatre major and nonprofit studies minor at James Madison University and have recently worked with JMU's Professional Children's Playshop in the summer of 2009.  I have a passion for children and the importance of theatre in their ever-changing development as productive and artistic citizens.

I thank you for taking the time to review and consider my proposal and I look forward to hearing your response.  If you are interested in the details of my research or this unconventional perspective, I would be glad to have my article, "Rediscovering Childhood in a World of Professionalism" on your desk within two weeks of hearing your response.  Thank you again.


Kelly Wetherald

Query 5:

Dear Editor,

Many people are fascinated by the survival stories of the men and women who endured life in concentration camps during the Holocaust, but how often do we really stop and think about how hard and grueling their lives must have been?  There are plenty of books and documentaries on this subject, but few have ventured to take these stories to the stage.  A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story, by Pamela Hendrick, is the story of Elizabeth Blum, who, by the age of nineteen, had endured life in six concentration camps.  It is based on personal interviews and the book written by her granddaughter, Shana Fogarty.

I would like to offer you a 1000-word article title "Staging the Holocaust," which examines the long process of transforming the book and interviews of this Holocaust survivor into a theatrical production.  Specifically, I will examine the process of the show performed by The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey at the 42nd Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival held in Indiana, Pennsylvania.

The stage is a place where we see stories brought to life, made into a reality.  This article will explain exactly how that is made possible.  It will follow the show's development from a simple interview, to the writing of the book, and finally, to the stage.  It will not only present the difficulties in putting such an emotional event under the lights, but it will explain the effect that doing so can hold.  Staging historical events is different from creating a movie on the subject in that the action is experienced right before our very eyes; the audience is in the moment, and is able to relive a bit of history.  This not only creates a bridge to the past, but it furthers one's appreciation of the present.

As a Theatre major at James Madison University, I have had the privilege to work on various shows and see exactly how they come into existence on the stage.  This story is unique, however, and travels far beyond the stage curtain. 

I hope that you sense my passion for this subject and if interested, I can have my full article to you within two weeks of your approval.  I am looking forward to hearing from you.  

Thank you for your time,

Valerie Gibbs

Query 6:

Dear Editor,

The other day I saw a four-year-old teach her father how to use his I-Phone to take a picture.  Generations in this country find it difficult to communicate because they do not communicate through the same media.  Temple University's theatrical production of Shot! at the Kennedy Center's American College Theatre Festival held at IUP mixes the formal medium of theatre with the technological medium of film to form a multi-generational, live-technology medium and  discuss racial issues in past and present Philadelphia.

I want to offer you a 1000 word article entitled "Snap-Shot!:  Temple University's Shot! Discusses the Role of Race in Past and Present Northern Philadelphia."  Shot! utilizes live and prerecorded interviews with our city's citizens of past and present to shed a new light on racial prejudice from 1964 to today.

"Snap-Shot!" addresses how the fuse of theatre and film made a new medium for addressing race in Shot!  Interviews from old and new generations of Northern-Philadelphian audience members explore how Shot! acts a gateway to new racial frontiers.  The article concludes with the idea that interlocking technology and race in Shot! helps two generations of Philadelphians share accounts of racial strife.

This article is important to Philadelphians because it demonstrates how multi-media performance in Shot! starts a new discussion that is accessible to all generations and races.

As a Native-American critic and a product of today's technology codependency, I offer insight into how using a timeless medium to fuse generations and discuss racial tension.  Additionally, "A Night at the KCACTF Drive-In," my runner-up critique in last year's American College Theatre Festival, provides insight into my exploration of the use of live-technology in Shot!

I hope that I can interest you in sharing this discussion with the city of Philadelphia.  If you are interested in publishing this article in your upcoming edition, then I can have it on your desk within 24 hours.  If you would like to propose any other topics for me to write on, please contact me.  Thank you for your time and interest.


Robby Bassler

Query 7:

Dear Editor,

It's always wonderful when we get to celebrate ambassadors of the City of Brotherly Love going forth and accomplishing great things, especially when our community was able to watch that group develop its talent. One such moment is quickly approaching and attention must be paid: the Arcadia University Theater has been selected to attend the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in January. There, Arcadia will be presenting their production of Samm Art-Williams' Home which ran in late October 2009. KCACTF recognizes and awards the best and brightest theater talent nationwide. Arcadia's student theater group has already received a number of merit certificates from the festival and now, they will have the chance to perform a full-length show in competition for celebrated theater professionals.

For your publication, I would like to write an 800 - 1,000 word article tentatively entitled: "Taking Home With Them." The piece will detail the production's path from stunning hometown show to successful, recognized opus as follows:

·      Back story. By interviewing Mark Wade (director), Taysha Canales, Brianna McBride Pope, and Jamal Douglas (all of them ensemble actors and KCACTF merit certificate winners), I will provide a look at the driving personalities behind the work's hometown success. I will also detail their connection to the Philadelphia area in depth.

·      Outcome. After establishing the group's path to the festival, the remainder of the piece will be devoted to detailing the students' current preparation for performance, the outcome of the competition, and the students' reaction to it.

I am a master's candidate in theater at Villanova University, a program I entered after spending four undergraduate years performing on a college stage. I have worked in various positions in two prominent Philadelphia theater companies (PTC and Theatre Exile). As such, I
am highly concerned with rising college theater companies that are making the Philadelphia cultural scene proud, such as Arcadia. I hope that a piece with as rich a connection to Philadelphia as this can find a home with your publication; if so, I can have it to you by January 20th. I thank you for reading my correspondence, and hope to hear from you!


Mark J. Costello

Query 8:

Dear Editor,

Beads of sweat dot the furrowed brow of the twentysomething actor. They gently cascade down his nose while the butterflies in his stomach do choreographed air shows. Throw on top of this the fact that he is competing against 200 other students for a chance at a scholarship. Thus is a case of one student who is taking part in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship.

I would like to offer you a 1000 word article on the journey of local college students who take part in the KCACTF Region II scholarship program (tentative title- Going for Granny: Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship).

In the article I would specifically like to track the progress of three to four students who take part in the process. Here I hope to examine their feelings about auditions, acting, and what the scholarship would mean to them.

To begin with, the article will briefly introduce the reader to exactly how students are selected. I will then follow the stories of three to four local college students who are competing in the competition. This will paint a picture of the experience of each actor's time in the Ryan audition process. Following the festival I will sit down with each student and conduct a formal interview. Here I will gets the reflections of each student after all is said and done.

As a former Irene Ryan partner and actor I know the strife auditions can cause and the journey students go through academically while honing their craft. These students are the future of theatrical arts, and they are products of this paper's base. I hope you find interest in this topic, and I am looking forward to your response. I can have a copy of it to you 3 weeks following the regional competition and your approval. Again thank you for your time!


Shawn Arnold

Query 9:

Dear Editor,

Angry shouts are heard in the distance.  You walk around the corner and down a street.  The sound grows louder.  You continue around yet another corner and find the source:  a large group of political activists spreading a message.  What might be the most intriguing aspect of the group is that they are made up of college students.  The college student body has traditionally been a political force to be reckoned with and the theatre has proven to be an excellent venue to send a message.

I am offering to write an article entitled something to the affect of "Political College Theatre - You Cannot Stop It!" that would be some 3,000 - 4,000 words in length on the political nature of college theatre and how it is bound to continue to be a natural choice of medium and venue through which a political message may be conveyed using the shows featured at this year's American College Theatre Festival in region two as examples. 

The article will include commentaries on the festival's productions of A Comb and a Prayer Book:  A Survivor's Story, Increased Difficulty of Concentration, and Widows Each have a political or social issue behind them (genocide, sexual morality in the workplace, and repressive government, respectively).  I will also include interviews with the cast and director of A Comb and a Prayer Book in my article, to gain a better demonstrate the potency of the political college theatre scene.  What's more, if you should chose to pursue the publication of this article, I will provide the full audio to the interviews I will be conducting.

My article would focus on the political and social aspects of each play and how college theatre groups will use plays like the ones that will be seen at the festival to make their own charged statement as well as how colleges are an ideal place to present a political play.

I hope to hear from you soon and that the topic of my article might be of interest to your publication. Thank you for your time.


Nicholas Barilar

Query 10:

Dear Editor,

You find yourself at an audition, receive a cold reading, and are told to go with no time to prepare.  The casting director vaguely asks you to try something "different."  Your scene partner drops their line and everyone stands around awkwardly, now unsure of both themselves and the scene.  Whatever the scenario, there is one solution accessible to all - improv.  With some sort of improvisational training, actors will never find themselves stumped in any sort of circumstance.

I would like to offer you an 800 word article titled "The Importance of Improv: Imagination in Action."  The article would discuss the significance of actors attending improv classes and workshops, and provide an evaluation of several workshops, informing readers about various teachers and their methods.

Take Gail Winar's workshop "Theatre Games," being taught at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival this week.  It describes itself as a way to "explore theater games and improvisational exercises to wake up your creativity, imagination, and awareness during the rehearsal process."  In my own experience, there are several types of directors, and a number of them have no problem with an actor bringing their own ideas to the table - some, in fact, encourage it.  Through improv, one can open themselves up, becoming more extroverted and willing to share their ideas.

Another area improv can help an actor explore is physicality; with enough creativity and a willingness to explore their environment and their body, actors can discover mannerisms unique to their character that they might never have dared to try before.  Improv is no simple chocolate or vanilla but rather the Neapolitan, where no one bite is exactly the same as the last.  Improv is a tasty gift that changes in every new situation.

The great American improvist Viola Spolin once wrote in her book "Improvisation for the Theatre" that "everyone can improvise."  Whether or not every person has the ability to travel to Second City or star on "Saturday Night Live" is of no matter; the mere introduction of improv can enhance an actor's innate skills.  My article will show the influence of improv by interviewing those who attend these workshops, and asking them how each class heightened the skills they already had.

I was not only involved in improv in high school, but also at my college (James Madison University's "New and Improv.'d").  The value of the practices, the conferences we visit, and the myriad of classes we attend is unfathomable, so I speak from experience when I say that improv is an inestimable tool that should be utilized by every actor.

Please let me know if you have any interest in this article or its subject matter, and I can have a finalized copy of the article delivered to you within a week.  Thank you for your time. 

Nathan Taylor

That's all for the pitches; the students are waiting to hear if any of these result in a home run. Tomorrow I'll post their first reviews, and appropriately enough, the two shows they saw today run the emotional gamut from comedy to tragedy. Both have literary roots, but A Year with Frog and Toad, based on Arnold Lobel's children's stories, and A Comb and a Prayer Book, based on Elizabeth Blum Goldstein's Holocaust memoir, couldn't be more different. I'm really looking forward to seeing how they handle this analytical mood swing, and I hope you are too.

January 13, 2010 8:31 PM | | Comments (1)
The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II O'Neill Critics Institute starts at Indiana University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday. I know that's a lot of qualifiers, but I, for one, am unqualified in my excitement about this year's event. Thus far, we're set to have the largest enrollment ever in this region, plus, two of last year's contenders will return to try again for their chance at the golden ticket. This is a big deal because, as you may have heard, the profession is in a bit of a holding pattern (cough, nosedive, cough) right now. But it does my heart good to see this many students undeterred; the more young, creative, tech-savvy minds willing to give arts journalism a go, the likelier it is that someone will grab the controls and steer us in a new direction. That would be nice, since spending so long preparing for impact really has me cramped up. 

As was the case last year, readers of this blog (and especially KCACTF participants) are invited to chime in with feedback for our writers. Ready to meet them? 

Shawn Arnold.jpgShawn Arnold is a senior at Clarion University and theater fanatic! He is currently pursing a B.F.A in acting, B. A. in history, and B. S. in secondary social studies education. His most recent stage appearance was in Clarion's production of David Mamet's one man show, Mr. Happiness. Some of his other theater appearances on the Clarion stage include a company member in the neo-futurist play 43 Plays for 43 Presidents, George in the dark one-act Shel Silverstein play Wash and Dry, and Mark Twain in Hauptman and Miller's musical Big River. Aside from theater and history, Shawn is also obsessed with the silly dead-pan antics of The Office and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He is excited to join Wendy and the institute again in its new incarnation following last year. He cannot wait for another chance to do it again . . . "That's what she said." [Ed. Note: Assuming here Mr. Arnold isn't referring to his teacher.]

Nic Barilar.jpg
Nic Barilar is a southern California native who fell in love with theatre at the Pantages in Los Angeles. He currently resides in the tundra of western Pennsylvania where he is a BFA acting major with technical theater and English literature minors at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. As an actor, he has been seen in such productions as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor DreamcoatPsycho Beach PartyMuch Ado About Nothing, and Brigadoon. Theatrically speaking, Nic also is interested in playwrighting, set design, and improvisation. Nic is an avid fan of the work of Stephen Sondheim. Apart from theatre, he enjoys reading the works of Stephen KingVictor Hugo, and Voltaire as well as playing piano, singing, and waxing humorous with his chums. Nic hopes to learn about a vital aspect of the theatrical world as well as improve his analytical abilities.

Robby Bassler.jpg
Robby Apple Bassler is currently enrolled as a senior in his last semester at James Madison University where he studies theater and English. This is his second time participating in the Kennedy Center's Critic's Institute; he received the runner up award during last year's competition in Region IV. Robby is also a playwright, director, actor, and technician but enjoys the potential of combining his knowledge of all of these elements in the world of critiquing. In his near future, Robby hopes to join Teach For America teaching theater in New York City and pass down what he has learned at the Kennedy Center's Critic's Institute.

Michael Cook.jpg
Michael Antonio Cook has been practicing theater in some form for almost half of his life. From an early age he has developed the ability to quickly form opinions and impressions on things and has an incredible memory. Because of this he has decided to try his hand at being a critic to share these insights he has with the world.

Mark Costello.jpg
Mark Costello is a second-year Master's student in the theater program at Villanova University where he focuses primarily on dramaturgy and playwriting. Most recently, he has served as the production dramaturg for Villanova's 2009 run of The Zoo Story; he is currently serving as the assistant dramaturg for the Philadelphia Theatre Company's world premiere of Terrence McNally's Golden Age. As a dramaturg, he believes that an easy and free flow of culturally relevant information helps a production inform both itself and its audience; as such, he's excited to begin doing critical work with the O'Neill Critics Institute so that he can engage with audiences instructionally through print and internet media.

Connor Davis.jpg
Connor Davis: I am a junior theatre major at James Madison University. At JMU I worked extensively as a stage manager and director. In high school, I directed an "abridged" 30-minute version of The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). The show competed in the Bucks County Playhouse Secondary School Festival, where I was named Best Director. This February I will direct Adam Rapp's Red Light Winter, and stage manage CharlesMee's bobrauschenbergamerica in May. After attending multiple productions in and outside of New York, I started to write down things I liked and disliked. This began as an exercise to help my directing, but has evolved into something I enjoy. I have never considered myself to be a great writer, but this is something I think I could be good at.  Through this workshop I hope to begin developing and working on the technique of writing critiques.

Valerie Gibbs.jpg
Valerie Gibbs: I am currently a junior theater major at James Madison University. I have been interested in theater practically my entire life, but most of my interest was in the performing aspect of it all. It was not until college that I started exploring the other aspects as well.  In college, we have to write papers on the various shows we see, and through the now two-and-a-half years of doing this, I have gained a greater appreciation for theatrical critiques. I have never been extremely confident in my writing capabilities, but I have improved and I want to continue learning how to master this trade. One of my professors suggested the Critics Institute at KCACTF to me, and upon further thought, I decided it would be a great learning experience. It might be tough for me at times, but I am definitely up for the challenge.

P.S. Northrop.jpg

Peter Starr Northrop is a Memphis-born, Pennsylvania-based writer with no style and an awkward sense of humor to match. He is currently a junior at Elizabethtown College, where he is frantically throwing together a double-major in English and theater. Mostly he divides his time between working as the head features editor for his school newspaper--The Etownian, heading the writers of a sketch comedy group, and attending the occasional class. When it comes to theater, Peter has recently stuck to the directing side of things. He just wrapped up a production of David Ives' English made Simple and is currently assistant-directing Elizabethtown College's production of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress.

Nathan Taylor.jpg

Nathan Taylor is a junior at James Madison University, currently working on a double major in theater and English. He has been involved with theater since he was a young boy, appearing in several shows in the Washington D.C. area during his childhood. It was not long before Nathan realized that he had to be involved in some facet of theater for the rest of his life. Coincidentally, he has also been involved with the English language since he was a young boy, attending elementary school and learning the alphabet during his childhood. It was not long before Nathan realized that he had to both be able to speak and read the English language if he was going to be successful in his adulthood. With the love of both writing and watching a production, he naturally has a passion for critiquing shows of all types.

Barbara Toperzer.jpg
Barbara Toperzer: I first became involved with the theater at the age of two as a baby in The King and I. The trauma of the experience meant that I've not been on the stage much since, but it seems like I just can't get away from it completely, no matter how hard I try to pretend I want nothing to do with it. I've been involved on the edges of the theater at McDaniel College since my freshman year, mostly by helping out with tech and somehow always ending up in housing with theater people. I have a huge respect for the process and everything that goes into it, and I do love to watch live theater whenever I can. Learning to do reviews seems like a great way to combine my love of theater with my love of writing. 

kelly jpg
Kelly Wetherald: I am a junior musical theater major and nonprofit studies minor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. I got involved with theatre in eighth grade and my passion for the arts has grown exponentially from there. Over the past few years at JMU I have explored multiple aspects of theater including performance, directing and criticism. With support from my parents and professors, I have learned that there are a variety of ways to express one's creativity in the realm of theatre. Theatrical criticism is honestly a foreign avenue for me, but I think that my love for the written word as well as my passion for theater will blossom with this program. I look forward to exploring and improving my criticism skills as well as opening up new possibilities for the future. 

Meredith Young.jpg
Meredith Young: I'm a senior theater major at James Madison University. My life of crime started about 10 years ago in community theater productions. I loved performing, so I decided to parlay that enthusiasm into a bachelor's degree. At JMU, I got involved with other production areas like costuming and directing until landing in nerd heaven with dramaturgy. One of my favorite things about experiencing a show is listening to others discuss it and piece together meanings for themselves. Theater criticism affords me the opportunity to be a part of that dialogue. I could talk about a show until the cows come home, but as I understand it, the difficulty lies in having the vocabulary to do more than slam or laud (as well as in finding a balance between reviewing and analyzing). This puts the onus on a critic to be as informed as possible. I look forward to stretching and learning at KCACTF this year.

A few of the students haven't sent their bios yet, so if they show up on registration day, you'll meet them too. Hopefully, you'll also show up on registration day and throughout the festival to check in with our participants, chart their progress, scan the multiple platforms we'll be using, and help us pick a winner. 
January 10, 2010 10:09 PM | | Comments (1)
Thumbnail image for 500full-irene-ryan.jpgNext week marks the start of Region II's Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF), and with it comes the convergence of hundreds of drama students on Indiana University of Pennsylvania's (IUP) campus. Plenty of actors, directors and writers saw their first moments of glory at this festival--say auditioning for (or even better, winning) an Irene Ryan Award (that's Ryan at left, as "The Beverly Hillbillies'" Granny), maybe making it to the big event in D.C. The shows chosen to participate in the festival represent the finest college productions in each region, and this year they range from the delightful and much-lauded A Year with Frog and Toad, performed by IUP, to SHOT!, Temple University's follow-up to In Conflict, its successful original docu-drama about the Iraq War.

But just as every ocean liner collects barnacles, so the KCACTF arrives with a little something called the O'Neill Critics Institute (OCI) attached to its underside. The OCI, like the festival's other segments, awards one outstanding writer not only a trip to the Kennedy Center shebang, but also a spot at the two-week-long summer Eugene O'Neill Critics Institute

I taught at KCACTF's OCI last year, when it was held at Philly's UArts (acronyms, anyone?). In order to get the students used to having their work read by an audience of strangers, I posted their reviews here, (scroll to the bottom) and ran the thing reality-competition-style, like a really boring version of "Project Runway," with a proscenium standing in for the runway and laser focus standing in for bitching and backbiting. (Where were the divas? The slackers? Damned well-behaved, hard-working kids!) 

This year, we're at it again, but stepping the action up a notch. It's just not fair to send these babes into the woods with old-school bread crumbs, because the woods have been clearcut, and home, it seems, is wherever you hang your RSS feed. I hope to arm them with a GPS and some of the tools they'll need to set up their own shops out there in the ether. 

Please comment on their work, offer suggestions, help us pick a winner, and let them know people still care deeply about theater criticism. Love critics? Great, tell them why. Hate critics? Tell them why. Indifferent? Tell them how they can convince you. Assuming all deadlines are met (lesson #1), you'll see the students here on Monday and every day after that until January 16, when everyone's still a critic, but only one gets the comp.

January 5, 2010 10:05 PM |
So this is it. We've come to the end of our weeklong foray into the exciting world of theater journalism (which this week conveniently managed to get a bit more exciting than usual). Though all our students stretched their fledgling critiquing muscles, there's only one empty chair at the Kennedy Center waiting to be filled by a Region II critic, and one waiting in the wings for an alternate. Those seats are so tough to come by I'm not even invited, which, you know, kind of hurts my feelings, but whatever. I'm sure whomever I picked will have a great time, and maybe bring me back a snowglobe or something.

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Without further ado, the winner is: Devin Dippold. Our alternate is Jessica Hinds-Bond. Coincidentally, both are grad students at Villanova University. Congratulations to them, and it was particularly gratifying, after agonizing over this choice for several hours, to see that you favored the same writers.  Everyone who was kind enough to comment on the students' critiques should know their comments were seen and discussed by all involved.

And one more thing: it ain't easy to make a profession sound exciting and glamorous when it's fighting for its life. The reason I posted this event here is because I figured we might as well get online and get used to interacting with an audience as quickly as possible, since that's the journalistic world these writers will inhabit once they graduate. And while watching the old newsroom model fade into oblivion is depressing as hell, on the flipside, if you're just stepping out of the collegiate cocoon, well, it's a pretty exciting time to be a writer. I know the economy's against them right now, but when that's all over (heaven help us), these students will be free to make their own rules and redefine arts criticism any damn way they please. 

The last time I taught at the University of the Arts, it was for a 'zine-making class. Remember those? DIY photocopied tracts you'd leave on the windowsill at coffeehouses? Like, not Starbucks, but dingy, poetry-reading-hosting independently-owned places that served espresso thick as mud? No? Then you're either too young or too old. There was a very narrow period when 'zines were all the rage, and when the internet appeared, they disappeared, and you're looking at what replaced them. The point is, with or without an established publication, writers will write, and the good ones will find an audience, and the scrappy ones will figure out a way to make it pay, too. Get enough scrappy ones together and you've got yourself a whole new arts journalism paradigm. It's our job as journalists and teachers to make sure the next generation doesn't flee from journalism, but instead leaves school ready to tear it free from its present bondage. I hope this year's Region II National Critics Institute has done its small part to feed this revolutionary spark. 

January 18, 2009 5:36 PM | | Comments (3)

Ralph.JPGLater today, I'll post the students' final reviews so you can have the pleasure of critiquing the critics, but first, without further ado, our merry--though exhausted--men and women, in their own words. P.S.: Ralph Leary (at left), who shows up in a couple of the entries, is the National Critics Institute Coordinator for Region II, and a professor of English at Clarion College in Clarion, Pa.

Jennifer Ford

I liken the past 60 hours to the first time I ever put contact lenses in my eyes: the National Critics Institute experience has sharpened my focus for watching and thinking about theater. Charged with the job of critiquing the shows in the festival, I found myself paying closer attention to a show's costuming, lighting, and set design, whereas in the past I was mostly attentive to the acting. The teaching also unveiled to me the absolute requirement for a critic to back up every assertion they make about a show. To do this, I had to practice cataloging a show's memorable moments and producing them as evidence to my claims.

The challenge to describe theater in fresh, crisp language and to choose the most important points to put on paper is harder than I thought. It has been especially humbling to work side by side peers who picked up the skills quicker than I did. At the same time, I deem "most valuable" the chopping-block class feedback sessions where every student had a chance to chime in and point out strengths/flaws in each other's writing. It was a safe environment for evaluation because we not only shared our amateur status, but we mutually understood that all of us were here to learn and grow.

Both Wendy Rosenfield and Ralph Leary have been gems: encouraging, witty, and specifically helpful. The only thing that would make this experience better is a longer week.

Jessica Hinds-Bond

The NCI schedule reminds me of tech weekends spent at the theatre, both in that we're so incredibly busy (over 12 hours on Thursday), and in how much is accomplished in such a short time period. Between attending critics sessions and performances, writing responses, and commuting to and from Center City every day, calling the program "intensive" would be an understatement. In spite of the long hours, I'm definitely enjoying the experience. I'm learning to approach theatrical performance in a new way, and getting to try my hand at some non-academic writing for a change. The sessions with my fellow critics have been fantastic because the broad range of backgrounds and interests enriches the discussion. I've noticed immediate improvement in my writing, and I have learned so much about the different ways in which critics, audiences, and theatre artists approach reviews.

Devin Dippold

One of my long-standing issues as a theatregoer was a tendency to be too kind to the performance. Rather than state my opinions honestly, I chose to either soften or outright conceal any strong criticism I had for a production. That attitude had to change at the NCI conference. It was one thing to say kind words about a production when your words were just those of a typical audience member. When you are supposed to provide expert commentary, however, kindness isn't really in the job description.

Learning to express my critical ideas wasn't so much a long discovery process as it was a rapid change. I had to say what I felt. I had to present an honest review every day, and it had to be driven by something real. If I hated a show, I couldn't just pretend it was good; I had to be honest with myself and admit that it was bad. It sounds simple enough now, but I just never let myself think that way. Now, I've found it impossible to go back to being nice. I tried during today's productions (which I am not reviewing) to relax and just enjoy the shows. Instead, I found myself critiquing everything onstage. Why is there a blackout here? Why is the pacing slow there? I can't turn it off anymore. And I don't want to, either.

P.S. Northrop

When we arrived at the Doubletree Hotel for the ACTF conference I picked up the keys for myself and my three other roommates.

'What's our room number?" One of the guys--Sam--asked in the lobby as I handed him his key.

"Uhh..." I looked at the little pamphlet I'd been given. "1408" I said.

"...The haunted hotel movie?" Gilliam asked.

I stopped--trying to think. A group of other conference participants sitting at a couch near us and clearly eavesdropping suddenly burst out laughing. Sure enough, there's a horror movie entitled 1408 where an evil hotel room all but eats John Cusack.

We took this in stride, figuring there was no such thing as evil hotel rooms. But, sure enough, the next day another roommate turned on the tv and what else was on the screen but Jon Cusack getting told by Samuel Jacksion that room 1408 was evil. We'd been there a day and already the place was fucking with us.

This forms part of the reason why I'm glad I got involved with the National Critics Institute competition here at the festival. I leave my hotel room every morning, turning to my roommates and saying "Don't die...please", at 9 and usually don't return until about 11 at night. 1408 doesn't get much of chance to hate me.

But really--NCI proves to be an incredible experience, haunted hotel rooms aside. Theater criticism is a beautiful mashup of the rigid journalistic world and the ethereal land of the theatre. Most of my counterparts have come from the theatre side of the collision, whereas I am the stuffy journalist of the group. I'm pretty sure this makes me the luckiest member of our little band, as I am surrounded with brilliantly minded actor-types with huge knowledge of the stage and all the crazy shit that goes on behind it. I've learned more in the past few days than I did in a good half of my last semester. I love the thirst for knowledge and the need to write displayed by all of these guys.

And all the while, I've been on an endless stress-high since about midday Wednesday. I love deadlines, the way they inexorably approach, threatening to wash over you, whether or not you and your writing are ready for them or not. I thrive off of that sense of urgency--because when I'm writing furiously, I swear it's one of the few times where I truly feel alive. It's the worlds greatest feeling--and the style of theater criticism allows you to let loose the chains that boring ol'regular journalism nomrall imposes on you. I love this writing, I love this festival, and not even room 1408 destroying us could take away the joy of it.

Yeah, sure--that end was abrupt, but if I didn't stop you know I would go on, reaching (and most likely surpassing) Valare-lengths. And no one wants that.

Until next time, kids.

Shawn Arnold

So I have to sneak back into classes Tuesday. On top of that I have to make up the things I missed this week(thank you). Ouch! However, I couldn't have asked for a more educational, more fun reason to miss than NCI. Although time consuming, it was such a free and thought
provoking process, yet it was so much fun. It was such a relief to find a group of individuals who can actually talk about theater in more than "good" or "bad." I mean is that too hard to ask for? Also I have learned a ton about how important it is to remain concise when writing
a review. The harsh world of editorial criticism has it limits on article size, and this forces the writer to keep the meat and remove the fluff. I have got to thank Wendy for her guidance in this process. I especially must thank her for helping me find my voice a bit more in
my writing. Plus she is a fan of The Office and Flight of the Conchords which makes her the coolest person ever. Major props Wendy! Anyways this week has been such a wonderful experience. Thanks to everyone involved!

Amy Martin

The overall effect of the NCI workshop experience has reestablished my personal relationship to theater. Having entered the world of criticism from an interest in dramaturgy I believed the class would improve my analytical skills, but the effect is much deeper. Although I love dramaturgy and working with the text, I found myself in conflict with many of the directorial choices and learning critical writing skills has provided an outlet for my beliefs. While watching a production, the arrogance that I once felt for defending a script has faded and been replaced by a more objective critical eye. Being a critic at the KCACTF festival has been a life-altering experience, for which I am entirely grateful. In addition, working in a writing class has brought attention to my writing style and technique. The great part about being a student is the ability to try new things and expand as an individual.

Savannah Ganster

So, I came to the American College Theatre Festival in Philadelphia this week expecting to sit in on playwriting workshops. Instead, I ended up participating in the National Critics Institute workshops. I know, I know... It's slightly shocking that I'd rather learn to be a theatre critic and review invited productions, than attend the playwriting workshops that I had looked so forward to. But fear not, the shock ends there.

The NCI workshops have been amazing! I feel like I've bonded with people who understand the theatre and who aren't afraid to write about their opinions. Regardless of the bad rap generally assigned to theatre critics, I can assure you that none of the nine people sharing this room with me throughout the NCI workshops are the asshole type. In fact, they've become some of the most supportive peers that I've known. As we sit in our workshop sessions critiquing our play reviews from the night before, no one is afraid to share their work. We provide each other with words of encouragement and constructive criticism and laugh and joke and talk theatre.

I couldn't have learned more about the journalistic art of review throughout the duration of this festival had I tried. Wendy and Professor Leary, our mentors, are treasure troves of knowledge concerning critiquing theatre. They've provided a great amount of support and criticism to aid us in our journeys as critics and as writers.

Despite the fact that I didn't attend any playwriting workshops, I feel as though my writing abilities have been nurtured and have grown. Everything that I've learned through the NCI workshops can be taken and applied to what I know about playwriting, which means that I've learned more than how to be an effective critic while I'm here. I've learned how to be an effective critic, how to be a better playwright, how to hone the art of writing into the veins of journalism, creative writing, etc., and how to let my unique voice of authority shine through all of my writing.

Tammy Bateman

I sat down on the first day of this week with the National Critic's Institute and I was incredibly overwhelmed. I am not comfortable with others reading my writing. I am a performer and therefore somewhat fearful of critics. So what brought me to this particular workshop at the festival? Well, with a small attempt at theatre criticism (more praising than criticizing due to the nature of the program) in high school, I thought that this could be another chance to learn this profession in a more serious way. And boy was it! I was not prepared for the amount of work and difficulty I would have trying to keep up with the other, more advanced writers in the workshop. But once I got past my initial discouragement, I was able to find the positive in this situation, as I try with all things. For one, my colleagues weren't condemning me for my short comings. They were all surprisingly supportive of my meager attempts at a few reviews, (and let's remember that they're aspiring critics--so now I know they really are nice people even if they may be critical in their writing). Aside from that, as an actor, listening in on what the critics look at can be majorly beneficial. While a review may be informative, in this environment I got the chance to listen to everyone's opinions (and not in 500 words or less) and really hear what they look for. I have a newfound admiration for this profession and what these writers do. I now understand the effort they put into their work. While I may have realized that maybe this career isn't for me, I've experienced a week of yet another part of this wonderful business and that counts as a success in my book!


January 17, 2009 10:38 AM | | Comments (1)


Savannah Ganster, Tammy Bateman and Amy Martin quietly rain down the pain in their ledes. And also illustrate why that MTV Rolling Stone intern reality show didn't exactly make compelling television.

Here's the deal: the students saw two productions last night--Penn State Altoona's Big Love, by Charles Mee, and SUNY Oswego's Honor and the River, by Anton Dudley. They wrote full reviews, turned them in this morning and were either critiqued into submission or inspiration, and perhaps some combination of the two. So I'm not going to post those full reviews here.

Instead, have a look at these ledes for today's production of Love's Labour's Lost (brought to the festival by Albright College) and tell our critics whether they've made you want to read more or if you've seen all you need to see of either review or production.

Love's Labour's Ledes

Devin Dippold

Battle lines are drawn. On one side stands a wild forest, filled with lovers frolicking. On the other side stand three columns, atop which the busts of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates look down upon all they "see." A man under their watchful eye partitions off these columns from the rest of the world. The Domino Players' production of Love's Labour's Lost prepares two sides for war, but does anyone really want to fight?


Jessica Hinds-Bond

A forest of lanky paper trees covered in cursive handwriting dots the stage. Three grown men hide unseen behind a narrow pillar, a skeletal podium, and a short bench. Women of radically different heights, dresses, and hair accessories don eye-masks and exchange scarves, fooling their lovers into proposing to the surrogate women. Sudden news of a parent's death spurs four betrothals and a happy ending. Only in Shakespeare are such things possible. In the Albright College Domino Players' production of Love"s Labour's Lost, they are not only possible but compelling and magical.

Shawn Arnold

Who wants to watch a boring old British play? Nothing is less entertaining to a contemporary audience than a stuffy portrayal of the classics. George Bernard Shaw, whose bulk of work is less than a century old, had the assistance of Lerner and Loewe to keep one of his plays fresh in the 50's. If Shaw is an issue, the Bard trumps them all. Too many productions of Shakespeare's works are often stilted and hackneyed. Albright College, however, does not follow down this boring path. The Domino Players Theatre Company of the college presents an uproariously flirtatious production of Bill's Love's Labour's Lost.

Savannah Ganster

The stage is set. Tall white trees shadowed with calligrapher's script create a poetic forest, which sets the mood for an elegant Shakespearian production, thanks to scenic design by Lisi Stoessel. Cue the classical music. Enter the characters dressed in their period costumes, courtesy of Paula Trimpey. As this show begins, so does the teeth gritting. Albright College Domino Players' presentation of Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare at the Merriam Theatre in Philadelphia makes for some laborious viewing.

Tammy Bateman

As The Domino Players of Albright College so wonderfully portrayed, Love's Labour's Lost is a hilarious comedy about friendship, knowledge, and love.  Filled with misguided courtships to make even a modern day soap opera seem simple, William Shakespeare's comedy shows four Lords of Navarre together in their pursuit of the noble ladies of France. The solidarity displayed by the Domino Players' ensemble is not only necessary for such a production, but executed with believability and success.

P.S. Northrop

From the moment the burgundy, 19th century floral print program for Albright College's production of Love's Labour's Lost is placed in your hands, you just know you're in for a ridiculous and stylized experience. Indeed, the players and designers of that show make good on the program's promise--delivering an ostentatious performance that makes fun not only of itself, but of the world that it comes from. Even if you hate the showier side of Shakespeare, this interpretation brings a delightful touch of youthful immaturity that makes Love's Labour's Lost a worthwhile endeavor.

Amy Martin

The current production of William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, by William Shakespeare, at the Merrian Theater in Philadelphia, works to ensure that the language is not a hindrance for the cast. The Albright University production features strong voices and distinct faces that successfully carry the weighty language, but the production neglects to incorporate the actors onto the set, which causes the two separate levels to emerge. Director Julia Matthews' blocking creates a silhouette drama where the actors appear foreign to the space, as if their heads are detached from their bodies.

Next time on Everyone's a Critic

Tomorrow marks our last full day for classes and theatergoing, and Saturday is judgement day, though you wouldn't know it by the way this group encourages and gently critiques each other. It's all very un-Real World, and frankly, kind of disappointing, but UArts wouldn't give us a hot tub, so I guess that's that.

Friday I'll post the results of another short exercise, and Saturday the full reviews will be up so you can help decide who gets the comp. Our winner then heads to the Kennedy Center for its College Theater Festival, and the winner at that event--who will be judged on the review they've written here--heads up to New England for a sweet two-week getaway (that is, if your definition of "getaway" is "really hard work" ) at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Critics Institute. It's pretty astonishing that there are still students motivated enough by their love of the arts to want to buck the trend and spend their free time trying to master this craft in what may be the most difficult moment of its evolution. I hope you'll encourage them to continue exploring this uncertain--but certainly worthwhile--path.

Shawn.jpgShawn Arnold. He's so our Suede. Ok, not really, but get a load of this crazy action shot!

January 15, 2009 3:33 PM | | Comments (4)
231149641_3641a7bef9.jpgToday was the first full day of the National Critics Institute meeting at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, and with it came a few new faces. Welcome is in order for Grove City College's Jennifer Ford, Penn State Berks County's Savannah Ganster, and SUNY Buffalo's Amy Martin. Madi Distefano (pictured here in a scene from her show Eye-95), a Philadelphia director/actor/playwright and founder of Brat Productions visited the class to talk about the effect of theater criticism on the theater community--not that I think it should guide the students, but certainly so that they may be aware of the heavy responsibility placed upon them as keepers of the cultural flame. 

What also worked out nicely was that Distefano's main gripe (What's with all the plot description?) and main suggestion (If you're going to criticize something, make sure you back it up with evidence.) dovetailed neatly with what we'd been discussing before she arrived. So it's settled: critics and the critiqued both want the same things out of a review. Glad we can agree on something.

The students also saw two challenging productions, which they'll be reviewing tomorrow. Stay tuned for the results. In the meantime, though Savannah and Amy didn't get a chance to craft their query letters, here are two more for your consideration. Any interested editors out there?

Query 1

Dear (Editor),


As a senior English major, I believe that Shakespeare's characters are a treasure bestowed to anyone who speaks the language he helped invent.  However, in the week prior to Grove City College's production of As You Like It, I kept hearing "Is the whole thing going to be in Old English?" in whiney, disinterested tones.  I wanted to explain no, Shakespeare was not Anglo-Saxon and in fact wrote in modern English, but perhaps he just possessed a broader vocabulary than you?   But I held my tongue.


Instead of responding directly to my peer's ignorant qualms, I'd like to write a 800 word article titled "Shakespeare-Induced Psychogogia."  Psychogogia refers to the process of one's soul being drawn upward towards truth, which is exactly what I believe happens in a (good) Shakespeare production.  This article will explore the process of approaching a Shakespeare text and will highlight different techniques that Grove City actors used to guide audience understanding in their recent production of As You Like It.   I also want to write about the attractiveness of Shakespeare's plays and bemoan their suffering popularity in contrast to contemporary theater's "cutting edge" sexual-awakening themes. 


To read a Shakespeare play is a rigorous but rewarding process, but then to transport his scripts onto the stage with the combination of dramatic lighting, exquisite costumes, and invigorating actors is to evoke a magical spirit.  Throughout the production of As You Like It, I most enjoyed the rehearsals when I could hear new understanding in a voice or see new relish a face.  Everyone contributed to breathe life into a text written in 1599, and the result was true beauty, realized on a stage. 


Overall, this article will point to the purpose for theater criticism: to put our mouths out of taste for bad theater and to instead instruct us towards what we should be watching.  The Grove City community should know that the college's production of As You Like It is accessible and hilarious.  Even if Shakespeare is not within one's personal realm of taste, Grove City's As You Like It has the power to change a mind. I can have this article to you within five days of your consent.  



Jennifer Ford

Query 2

Ms. Rosenfield,

Last year approximately fifty students participated in Elizabethtown College's Shorts Fest, a two-night event of short plays.  This year, the college is increasing its student participation by having not only student performers, directors, and designers, but making the event a major display of all types of theatrical talent within the college.  Billed as "The New Playwrights Festival," the collection of ten-minute plays of a widely varying nature has been written by the ten students in last semester's Playwriting class. 

I would like to write an article titled "Etown Theatre: Room for Everyone," that praises the theatre department and their bold steps to encourage such a wide array of theatrical talent.  In 1500 words I would like to cover the various forms of student participation for this event.

This piece will examine the extensive work done by the students in class with their drafting and revisions, as well as the creative process of selecting directors and casts for their plays.  I will discuss this process and how it has aided in the education of these students to the real world of theatre.  Another important aspect of this event is the production team, including stage and production management, box office, and front of house staff, as well as publicity committees.  I want to cover the work of all the students involved in this endeavor.  Lastly, I would like to include commentary from the faculty and students on their thoughts regarding this great opportunity.  

As an active member of Elizabethtown College's Theatre and Dance Division, I am very dedicated and proud of this event.  I was a member of the Playwriting course last semester, so I have been lucky enough to see this project from its earliest stages - a blank sheet of paper.  As a first-time playwright, I feel strongly about this opportunity and the opportunity it presents to all the students' various interests in the theatre world.  In 2005 & 2006 I was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer for my reviews for The Greater Philadelphia Cappies, demonstrating my strong passion for the world of theatre.  

I hope that my passion for this event has piqued your interest and that you would like to hear more about this event.  If you are interested, please let me know, and I can have an article to you within a week of your acceptance. 

Thank you for your time,

Tammy Bateman

January 14, 2009 11:31 PM |
This week I'm macking on: the brave, bold participants of Project Everyone's a Critic. These students will all be attending the Region II National Critics Institute of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival--and here, a monent of respect is due, because setting their sights on arts journalism at this particular historical/economic/technological/journalistic moment proves just how brave and bold they are. We may have more students signing up at the last minute, so stay tuned for the full cast credits. I will begin posting their writing on Wednesday, January 14 and hope to see you there.

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Jessica Hinds-Bond is a second-year theatre M.A. student at Villanova University. While completing her undergraduate degree in theatre design at Auburn University in Alabama, she discovered a love for dramaturgy and theater research. She is the dramaturg for Cabaret, Villanova's final production of the 2008-2009 season. She has been a member of the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Literary Committee for the past three years, reading and responding to plays submitted by students to the annual Playwriting Festival.


Devin Dippold graduated with honors from McKendree College, where he directed, wrote, and starred in Chosen Reject, a one man show based on the writings of Kurt Cobain. He is currently a second year student in the M.A. program at Villanova University, where he recently dramaturged their production of Le Dindon by Georges Feydeau. He also stage managed last season's production of The Illusion. Acting credits include Gus in The Dumb Waiter, Tartuffe in Tartuffe: Born Again, and Ed in Defying Gravity. In his spare time, Devin plays guitar and is a martial arts instructor. 


Shawn Arnold loves theater and love to analyze it. He is a Central Pennsylvania resident from Philipsburg. Shawn is currently attending Clarion University of Pennsylvania with a double major in both the BFA acting and secondary education social studies programs. In addition to his interest in theater, Shawn is also a lover of history and all things about the past. Shawn has also taken an active step to foster theater in his home town. He has been heavily involved in the creation of both a community and youth theater program in the area. 

P.S. Northrop.jpg

Peter Starr Northrop is a Memphis-born, Pennsylvania-based writer with poor fashion sense and an awkward sense of humor to match. He is currently a Sophomore at Elizabethtown College, where he is slowly dragging out a double-major in English and theater. There, he divides his time between working as a writer and editor for the school newspaper--The Etownian, pretending to run the newly founded sketch comedy group Sketch-E's writing department, and attending the occasional class. Peter's theater background is limited to only three years spent in a high-school improv troupe, having minor roles in a few college mainstage and one-act productions, and writing/performing for his aforementioned sketch comedy group. His other varying hobbies include cooking, hiking and most of all, discovering all sorts of things about the crazy world in which we live.


Justin Fitzpatrick is a freshman theatre major at Albright College. He avidly participates in theater in many ways such as performing, directing, choreographing, and vocal coaching. His passion lies with musicals. Past shows on which he has worked include: On Broadway: A Scene Study (Link Larkin), Footloose (Garvin), Oklahoma! (Will Parker), Bye, Bye Birdie (Co-Director), The Secret Garden (Lt. Wright), The Sound of Music (Rolf), Seussical: The Musical (Horton the Elephant/Vocal Coach), The Pirates of Penzance (Co-Director/Vocal Coach/Choreographer), High School Musical (Mongo), You Are Here* (Jimmie), Love's Labour's Lost (Forester/Mercade).   Recently, Justin realized that he has a natural habit of critiquing every type of performance he sees, and has decided that being a part of the National Critics Institute at the KCACTF would be a beneficial experience.

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Tammy Bateman is a junior at Elizabethtown College. A major in both Business Administration and Theatre Performance, Tammy enjoys all aspects of the theater world. She has been performing for the last seven years and served as a critic for the Greater Philadelphia Cappies program at Ridley High School. At Elizabethtown she currently serves as Vice President for the drama club, Sock and Buskin, and manages the Tempest Theatre Box Office. In her spare time she can be seen performing with the college's all-female a capella group, Melica. She is very excited to be a part of the National Critics Institute and competing as an Irene Ryan Nominee for Region II at this year's festival.  

This week I'm hating on: The fact that not a month after Dance Dance Revolution closed, the Ohio Theatre--which housed it--is closing too. Not only that, as I'm getting ready to work on a piece about new play development, one of the plays I'm covering, Christina Ham's After Adam, was cut from Luna Stage's roster because of the theater's "survival" issues. Though Broadway's darkened doors get all the major press, I'm guessing that in the end, they'll be okay. The real theatrical victims of this economic iceberg are houses willing to take chances on exciting, experimental and ultimately galvanizing new work, because they're so much more vulnerable and once they're gone, their founder's often very particular aesthetic goes with them. 

The good news? Hey, how about this: Even though these days newspapers are less about "all the news that's fit to print" and more about "whatever print still fits," the Inquirer is mulling over adding three new theaters to our reviewing circuit. Proof that at a time when theater critics are an endangered species, we're needed more than ever.
January 9, 2009 8:41 AM |
At this remarkably glum moment for the arts and arts journalism (I'd link to some examples, but you're probably depressed enough already), I'm stepping into the Guest Critic position at the Region II National Critics Institute of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Next week, for five days, it will be my job to convince a half-dozen or so aspiring young writers that theater criticism is a worthy professional goal. 

But I've got my game face on, and you know why? It's because the current crop of college-age kids are undoubtedly the ones who will transform arts criticism. They're not used to reading a pulp-and-ink newspaper, and they probably don't expect to get a job at one. But they're online ALL THE TIME, and whether they blog or use social networks to share information, they're not wringing their hands over the lack of "classically trained" online journalists. Though the nuts and bolts of good writing certainly don't change, that classical training is in dire need of the kind of overhaul that many journalism professors just aren't qualified to offer, at least not yet, while the dust is still stirring and no one knows quite how it will settle. 

So here's what I'm thinking: I'm going to mix it up a little and run this Institute like a mini-Project Runway: welcome to Project Everyone's a Critic. From January 13-17, the students and I will attend shows, talk about them and write about them. At session's end, I will channel my inner Klum and choose one student to attend the national festival at the Kennedy Center this spring. 

That's where you come in. 

The students, all either college- or graduate-level, have agreed to let me post their writing here--reviews, ledes, whatever they've got--and in an effort to blend new media with old-school written critique, I'd appreciate it if you'd weigh in with your assistance, guidance, words of encouragement, and yes, some critique of your own (remember please, they're still aspiring critics). I'm not collecting votes or anything, but if you have a clear favorite, by all means, let me who it is and why. This is my attempt to give them a taste of what it's like to write as journalists for an audience of internet strangers who have the ability to talk back and aren't afraid to use it.

I'll post the participants' bios in tomorrow's Mack Attack. Until then, I dunno... What's my tagline? Maybe, "Exeunt, stage left."
January 8, 2009 5:30 PM | | Comments (5)
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